I knew the place even though I had never seen it. I'd haunted its rooms and walked its floors even though I'd never stepped inside the door. I knew the house long before I heard the name of the street on which it stood. The house endured in my imagination. Like a sanctuary on a hill, it stood untouched by time and unsullied by the urban decay around it.
But the house didn't materialize until on a visit to London last fall, when I met my dad's sister for the first time. Although I had never heard of her, she knew me. I was the lost nephew, the one who lived in America.
As we sat around a table during my sister's wedding reception, my aunt revealed my secret history. She told me about the house on Graham Road that was once a family sanctuary. It was where her son's babysitter lived. My mother lived upstairs in the terraced house. My dad, the landlord, lived downstairs with his wife and three children. My life began somewhere in between.
Armed with my newfound knowledge, I asked my mother about Graham Road. I wanted to see the place for myself. It was embedded in my genes, seated as it was at a crossroad on my DNA map, where beginnings and endings converge.
She said she lived there with friends when she emigrated from the West Indies in 1960. At that time, Hackney, like much of East London, was a magnet for energetic newcomers. As she spoke, I pictured her young, vibrant and gay, laughing, striding headlong into London life. Forty-three years on, the stride had become a brisk shuffle, her laughter subverted by anxiety. But time, hard time, could never dislodge her memories of the place.
So on a fall afternoon, we boarded a bus in Leyton, E. 10 and headed for Graham Road, Hackney E. 8. East London is an outdoor bazaar of the exotic. As we sat on the double decker bus, I saw sidewalks lined with Vietnamese, Pakistanis, Indians, Croats, Turks, Greeks, Africans, West Indians and Arabs.
Women dressed in traditional Muslim attire, their covered heads, faces and arms a dour contrast to the bare midriffs of the black and white young women who passed them by. My mother, dressed in a light sweater and slacks, her short black hair in a casual curl, looked at the passing parade without expression.
Sitting on a moving commuter bus is like being in a theater watching a movie, each frame filled with unconnected characters. School children in uniforms walked home, cell phones pressed to their ears, backpacks on their lithe shoulders.
The hum of the bus tires merged with honking car horns, giving the city its own peculiar music. At each stop, the doors swung open long enough to allow the throaty sidewalk voices to board the bus. They were foreign accents to my hybrid Yankee ears, like hearing a Beatles lyric on a Bob Marley soundtrack. As we changed buses, we saw Indian shopkeepers behind translucent glass windows, their shelves stocked with Cadbury chocolate bars and tabloid newspapers.
Fish and chips shops, Chinese, Greek, Arab take-away, the venerable tavern stood shoulder to shoulder with antiques stores and greengrocers. Sidewalks resembled horizontal escalators laden with women pushing baby strollers with toddlers tagging along.
Nearly an hour later, we climbed off the bus in the Dalston area of Hackney, near Mare Street and Amhurst Road. We walked a short distance and turned on to Graham Road. On the left, a modern apartment tower stood posh and inviting, awaiting the upwardly mobile. On the right, an Internet cafe, dark and mysterious, bustled with activity.
The brief commercial activity quickly gave way to classic London-style row houses that begged for paint. Then we stopped. This is the house, my mother said. Nondescript, like any other house in East London, it was as she had left it a lifetime ago.
For me, that house on Graham Road was a beginning. But for her, it was supposed to be a prelude to a happier ending. A skilled seamstress, my mother worked in the garment industry. Life in London was fashioned with promise. The rented upstairs bedroom was an interlude that became my life. My mother left Graham Road soon after she learned that she was pregnant and her relationship with my father became public. She moved to Mile End, in North London, where we lived after she returned from Hackney Hospital. She stayed home with me for five months before she returned to work. The wife of a fellow immigrant was my babysitter. But the landlord didn't want any crying babies for tenants, and my mother moved again. She found a room in Holloway. The room was too small, so she moved to Mild May Grove.
Not long after that, I shipped out on a tourist liner back to the West Indies with my paternal grandparents. I left behind my mother fending for herself. My dad lived at Graham Road until 1964. Then, my aunt said, one day after work she went to Graham Road to collect her son from the babysitter and saw the sign out front. Half a dozen years of cold, damp London, the hustle of working for British Rail were more than my father could stomach. He picked up his family and returned to the islands. In more than 40 years, my dad never spoke to me about Graham Road.
But there I was on that September afternoon, returning as if to the scene of the crime. For a moment I stood watching the house, as if waiting to see myself emerge and step into the sunlight. And for that brief moment, it was as if I had never left. There on Graham Road was my starting line and my final destination. A house on a quiet, empty street, one address that is a signpost along the highway of my life.
Andrew Skerritt is an assistant editor for the St. Petersburg Times in Hernando County.